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Jessica Howard, a USA Gymnastics Hall of Famer, told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday that the culture of USA Gymnastics has been about "money and medals" more than about the well-being of its athletes.
Olympic medalist Jamie Dantzscher, who also spoke at the hearing on sexual abuse of young athletes, tearfully testified that a former USA Gymnastics team doctor began molesting her when she was 12, representing it as medical treatment, and that the abuse even occurred in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, where she won a bronze medal.
"I thought I was the only one," Dantzscher said. "I was disbelieved and even criticized by some in the gymnastics community for bringing this disturbing issue to light. Now I know I am not alone. More than 100 women have come forward and shared stories that are shockingly similar to mine."
The Indianapolis Star, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, has reported more than 360 cases in which gymnasts have accused coaches of sexual transgressions over 20 years. More than 80 gymnasts have alleged sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, who was the national team physician from 1996 to 2015. Nassar is in custody in Michigan and faces local, state and federal charges related to criminal sexual conduct and child pornography. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is co-sponsor of a bill that would make it a crime for national governing bodies -- there are 47 under the Olympic umbrella -- to fail to report child sexual abuse allegations promptly to law enforcement or child welfare authorities. She and 16 others are co-sponsors of the proposed bipartisan bill, which would also extend the statute of limitations in such cases.
Rick Adams, who represented the U.S. Olympic Committee, said his organization is in favor of the proposed bill. "The abuse should have been detected, it should have been prevented and it should have been promptly reported," he said. "The Olympic community failed and must do better."
Adams said the USOC's recently launched U.S. Center for SafeSport would provide an independent system for reporting and investigating abuse allegations and a searchable database for banned and suspended coaches. Only about eight national governing bodies publish such a list now, according to a quick review of their websites. The sort of database that Adams spoke of would help to prevent coaches who are banned in one sport from going undetected to another.
Adams also said he believes officials of USA Gymnastics "should have known" about Nassar, who is alleged to have sexually abused gymnasts across decades.
"We recognize the difficulty of stepping forward to share your stories," Adams said to the former gymnasts, "and it is our obligation to build on your courage and bravery to make real and lasting changes."
USA Gymnastics did not send a representative to testify, for which senators criticized the organization severely. USA Gymnastics sent a statement in which it said it favored the proposed bill and that it is conducting an independent review of its policies to find ways to strengthen them.
Steve Penny, the organization's CEO, resigned this month. Dantzscher said that was a baby step and more officials of USA Gymnastics need to go.
Dantzscher and Howard, along with former gymnast Jeanette Antolin, shared their stories publicly on 60 Minutes in February.
Dantzscher was a member of the 2000 team that won a bronze medal in the Sydney Olympics. Howard was a three-time national champion in rhythmic gymnastics, winning the title in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Antolin attended the hearing and spoke at a news conference afterward, discussing how she was sexually abused by her first gymnastics coach. She praised the proposed bill, which she said would give young athletes a voice when "for so long it felt like we had no voice."
Dantzscher and Antolin filed lawsuits against Nassar and USA Gymnastics as Jane Doe plaintiffs before they appeared on 60 Minutes. Dantzscher's lawsuit, filed in September, alleges Nassar would "digitally penetrate Plaintiff's vagina in order to adjust her bones. This 'intravaginal adjustment' was done without gloves, lubricant, and/or a chaperone" and was done for Nassar's sexual gratification.
Dantscher and Howard testified that Nassar told them he was performing medical treatments.
Dominique Moceanu, who won gold in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, testified that she was never sexually assaulted but that she suffered verbal and emotional abuse during her time with USA Gymnastics. She said there is urgent need to reform the organization.
Eric Olsen, commonwealth's attorney in Stafford County, Va., said mandatory reporting of any allegations of child sexual abuse is a good step.
"Abuses aren't going to report themselves," he said.
Howard said after she retired from competition she served time on the USA Gymnastics board of directors and that she pushed for more protection for children.
But, she said, meetings revolved around money and medals.
"When a sexual abuse case came up during my time on the board," she said, "the concern was about the reputation of the coach, not the accusation of the athlete."
Brady reported from Washington.
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